The Devil Made Me Do It, or: Tolerance Isn’t Supposed To Be Easy: David Habecker

My bible is the Constitution; my faith is in its wisdom and promise.


David Habecker
Photo by Brent Nicastro

David Habecker was recalled from office last spring as a Trustee of the Town of Estes Park, Colo., for failing to recite the religious Pledge of Allegiance. The formal recall petition questioned his patriotism and even his “common decency.” David, who has to earn a livelihood in his tiny community, has nevertheless spoken up to defend freedom of conscience. He was named a “Freethought Hero” at the Foundation’s annual national convention in Orlando last November.

As attorney Robert Tiernan put it in his motion for summary judgment, if this tactic is permitted, “The door will be opened to a purge of public officials who do not believe in a divinity or that this is a nation subservient to a divinity. . . the state has no right to force a citizen to pay homage to a deity.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is now a co-plaintiff in David’s lawsuit seeking to declare the addition of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional, and to carve out protection for public officials exposed to the religious pledge.

David gave the following acceptance speech on Nov. 12, 2005.

By David Habecker

Good morning and thank you for your warm reception and opportunity to address an issue that affects us all. I especially thank Annie Laurie for her assistance in being here.

Obligatory joke: Dick Cheney went duck hunting but didn’t find any ducks to shoot. Seems he had faulty intelligence.

Can anyone tell me who said the following? (See answers at conclusion.)

1.”Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
2.”Freedom by its nature, must be chosen and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities.”
3.”It is one of the central tenets of a free society that individuals . . . should not be coerced . . . to engage in activities that violate their moral or religious beliefs.”
4.”You don’t have to have uniformity to have unity.”

If the leaders of this country were to actually understand and believe the words they spew, this organization would have no purpose.

My country tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing
Land where our fathers died, Land of the pilgrims’ pride
From every mountainside . . . let freedom ring!

Freedom! Freedom to; freedom of; freedom from; we all love the word and the realization. Easy to say, difficult to defend!

When you are in the minority, there is another word of equal importance–tolerance! Tolerance is freedom’s homely sister because it is only important to the minority, who cannot be free without it. Tolerance isn’t supposed to be easy.

Speaking of tolerating a minority, as far as I know, I am the only elected government official to be recalled from office for not standing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

I have been a resident of Estes Park, Colo., for the last 28 years, and in that time my wife and I have raised a family, built two businesses, and actively supported our church, schools, and community. I was elected to the Town Board four times and had served a total of 13 years as Trustee. My patriotism, respect for my fellow citizen and respect for my community and country have never been questioned, as I have never given anyone reason.

Last April, one of my fellow board members suggested that we begin reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at our bimonthly board meetings as a show of support for our troops. No discussion followed and I assumed her suggestion died for lack of a second. Two meetings later, the Mayor said we were starting a new tradition by reciting the pledge at the beginning of each meeting, and we did.

Now, it had been a long time since I’d participated in this ritual, and like all of you here, a lot of water had passed under my bridge. Different beliefs and experiences had changed my feelings toward God and the pledge and now, instead of it being a feel-good exercise, I felt boxed in.

Let me explain. First of all, the pledge is demeaning. Our allegiance to this country should be assumed, just as our innocence of any crime is assumed.

There were also constituents and families, who, because of differing conscientious objections, could not participate in the pledge. They were now excluded from equal participation in our Town government meetings.

Plus there were people who would know what a hypocrite I was by standing for something they knew I objected to. How could I be true to anyone if I couldn’t be true to myself?

And finally, the most important point is one that has divided us for the last 51 years. By reciting the pledge we acknowledge a god, and even though some courts have argued that this reference to “God” is benign, obscure, historical, we all know better. The majority of Americans believe we are referring to their Christian God, and that in fact, we are a Christian country. By reciting the pledge, I would be verifying their assumptions, even if I didn’t say the words “under God.”

I had lost my freedom and only knew of one way to get it back.

By the second meeting in August, I saw no other recourse than to remain seated. I stated that the words “under God” offended me and that I would remain seated until Congress removed the words. In a tolerant society, this would have been the end of the story, but in today’s political climate, I knew better.

At our next meeting, the board member who originally requested the pledge, and subsequently her husband, said it was my right to protest and that they, as veterans, would defend that right, but as an elected official, I must respect the majority opinion and if I didn’t, they wanted their vote back.

Her husband and two other men proceeded to initiate my recall.

The citizens at the next meeting were mostly hostile, with several of them coming forward to soundly criticize my actions and demand my resignation. All of the old arguments were made, including: if you don’t believe in God then how do you justify spending money with “In God we trust” written on it? Our founding fathers were all believers and a creator was referred to in the Declaration of Independence and you should respect all those who died for this country, and so on. The worst was when a veteran of WWII and Korea, whom I have know, for years, came forward and gave me hell, calling me disgusting, disrespectful, and unworthy of my position.

Finally, from the back of the room came an old-timer whom I knew as a retired history teacher. (He reminds me of the Peanuts character Linus, except taller and older.) He introduced himself and explained that he also did not stand for the pledge as it wasn’t a necessary exercise for him. He explained that he had flown B-17s during WWII and had been shot down over Germany. After spending a year and a half in a POW camp, he knew he was being liberated when he saw our flag coming in the gate. His point was that even without knowing his history, no one could question his patriotism or love of country, and that my patriotism shouldn’t be questioned either.

I read a statement explaining that I meant no disrespect but that my religious convictions prevented me from participating as they demanded. Besides my religious convictions, it was my sworn oath to support the Constitution of the United States, which I believe forbids my participation in the pledge. Article Six of the Constitution says in part: “but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The pledge is a religious test; it is a de facto law respecting the establishment of religion. If I were to be recalled, my free exercise would be prohibited.

I then challenged the community, saying that if they believed my Constitutional rights could be subjected to a majority vote of the people of Estes Park, they were then duty-bound to sign the recall petition. The petition was approved for form, signed by the requisite number of voters (about 5%), and an election date was set.

Soon after, I ran an ad in our local newspapers starting with the words of the petition:

Summary of Proposed Recall of Trustee Mr. David Habecker
Electors suffer loss of confidence in Mr. Habecker’s ability to represent citizen’s national pride, patriotism, and common decency. Prior to Town Board of Trustees meetings, he purposefully and irreverently chooses to publicly sit, facing away from the flag of the United States, during recital of the Pledge of Allegiance. His defiant behavior occurs because the phrase “. . . under God . . .” offends him. He states he intends to continue until the United States Congress strikes the phrase from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Habecker failed to reveal this violation of his principles during campaigns for election. We consider this omission a deliberate tactic to assure voter ballots towards his election. We consider this tactic unethical and unacceptable.
We respect Mr. Habecker’s right to free speech under the Constitution of the United States, but insist on maintenance of responsibility, accountability, leadership, respect for others, and high standards of public conduct. His vital beliefs regarding church/state personal conflicts were not revealed at the critical time of election. We do not regard these actions, omissions or motivations honorable, and demand his removal from this elected position.

In my reply, I stated:

“The words of the Petition and statements made by its supporters have been inaccurate, exaggerated, and are meant to inflame people’s passions against me, my family, and my livelihood.

“I did not ‘. . .purposefully and irreverently . . . sit, facing away from the flag. . . .’ Proponents of the recall make it a point to say that I turned my back to the flag, which is an inflammatory statement and untrue; literally and figuratively.

“I was last elected two years before the pledge was added to our Board meetings. To say that any campaign omission concerning the pledge was a deliberate tactic would make me clairvoyant, not unethical!

“The petitioners can’t say they respect my right to free speech when at the same time they use extreme methods and language to coerce me or any future trustee from ever exercising free speech. To remain seated during recital of the pledge shows respect for the Oath of Office and is supported by the United States Supreme Court.

“Quoting Justice Jackson from the U.S. Supreme Court opinion, West Virginia State Board Of Education v. Barnette, June 14, 1943, a ruling against the compulsory recital of the Pledge:

Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.
The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials, and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

“And in concurrence, Justices Black and Douglas: “(The pledge) . . . is a form of test oath, and the test oath has always been abhorrent in the United States”:

Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest. Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws enacted by the people’s elected representatives within the bounds of express constitutional prohibitions. These laws must, to be consistent with the First Amendment, permit the widest toleration of conflicting viewpoints consistent with a society of free men.

“We now find ourselves in a situation that is not of my choosing. The Pledge of Allegiance is a loyalty and religious test which should not be part of our official Town Board meetings. The choice to rise or remain seated during its recital is a guaranteed First Amendment right which cannot be subjected to a vote of the people.

“The state statute concerning recall allows the petitioners full responsibility for its content but denies me the ability to challenge its constitutionality without using the courts. When the petition is submitted with the required number of signatures, the Town (and this means all of us), assumes responsibility for its content and must defend the voters’ actions.

“How does this coercive action affect your exercise of religion or free speech? Do you feel intimidated? Are all citizens’ First Amendment rights going to be subject to the test of the majority? Who is the next person to meet with some malice or persecution or prejudice at a Town Board meeting? If it’s you, who will stand up and defend your rights?” my response concluded.

About this time, it became apparent that legal advice might be a good thing. Robert Tiernan of Denver had offered his support and legal assistance if I was so inclined, and through his flexibility plus a substantial commitment from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, I have been able to pursue justice. Bob is one of those rare attorneys who appreciate the texture of the human experience more than the texture of an expensive suit, and I’m lucky to have him, his assistant Julie, and you all on my side.

In January, we filed a complaint with the United States District Court in Denver, asking that the recall vote be stopped, that the pledge be found unconstitutional, to find that my rights to free speech and religion had been denied and that my recall was in violation of the Colorado Constitution, which says specifically: “no person shall be denied their political capacity because of their religious beliefs.”

To this point I had not revealed what my religious beliefs were, but to legitimize my complaint, I now revealed that I was agnostic and atheist. I also revealed that my son, a graduate of Caltech with a degree in physics, was also agnostic, and that my daughter, who served her fellow man as a paramedic in Denver, where she had two ambulances totaled from under her, was a Jehovah’s Witness. (Since the pledge has been recited, neither of my children is welcome at our board meetings.)

At the last meeting before the vote, I made one last attempt to make my point. I brought a copy of the bible that the Gideons left at our hotel and asked the audience if anyone disagreed that the God in the pledge is the same God as described in this book. No objection. I noted that it starts with Genesis, a delightful children’s story where God kills every man, woman and child on earth except, of course, Noah’s family, and ends with all of the nonbelievers like me burning in a lake of fire and brimstone. I then showed them my oath of office, where I swear to uphold the Constitutions of the United States and Colorado and Ordinances of Estes Park. I laid it on the desk in front of me, then on top, copies of the town ordinances, then the Constitutions, one over the other, just as it should be. I then said that by saying we are a nation “under God,” you have done this, and I placed the bible on the top of the stack. Silence!

The vote took place and I was recalled with a vote of 605 to 903.

Herein lies the dilemma. Can a citizen use discriminatory reasoning to justify voting for one person over another? Can a person rule out a candidate for elected office because that person is black, or a woman, or Arab, or Jewish, a humanist, an atheist, or in a wheelchair? In a general election, there is no way to prove what criteria a person uses when voting, so the answer might be yes, they can. But morally and ethically, the answer might be no, they can’t.

In the case of a recall vote like mine where the reason is specifically discriminatory, do the same rules apply? On religious grounds, I chose not to participate in the voluntary Pledge of Allegiance, and for that reason only I was recalled. The petitioners say that the recall had nothing to do with my religious beliefs, rather, they object to my lack of respect for their beliefs. In other words, I can refrain from saying the pledge as long as they don’t know about it. But where is the respect for my beliefs? Where is the tolerance?

Over the last several months, our case has gone forward: depositions were taken, findings made, settlement hearings attended, motions for summary judgment from both sides submitted and countered. Now we wait on the judge.

Very briefly, here is the argument against our motion from the US Attorney General’s office: The pledge is a voluntary patriotic exercise and the “under God” portion was only inserted as a historic recognition of our founding fathers’ religious beliefs; That I, in no way was forced to do anything; and that because I had lost the election and was no longer a trustee, I had no standing.

By defending the use of the words “under God,” the government officially recognizes the existence of a god, and the preeminence of the Christian God and that is not the government’s job!

At a family gathering, where many are school teachers, we naturally talked of their requirement to lead their students in the pledge. My brother had a class with one Muslim student. You may think you know what’s coming but in fact there was one day where this student was the only one standing for the pledge. The rest were sitting because it had become the cause du jour in support of other students. My niece’s husband had a mostly minority class where none of them stood for the pledge. “It’s not our country, whitey,” was the sentiment. These are not isolated cases, but supporters of the pledge still say it’s not divisive.

The funeral of Rosa Parks made me think of the similarities between her protest and mine. She legally sat when the majority said that she should stand. This country has learned that discriminating against blacks is wrong, while at the same time arguing for religious discrimination.

Many of you have probably read or have heard of the book, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. He argues that liberal democracy is the form of government that will eventually win out and that nothing better will come along. The book is a difficult read but the ideas are sound, except for one that has troubled me. He says that there are times when the minority should tolerate the majority in order to have harmony. Is this one of those times? Is this an issue we should let the majority win? Should we compromise our basic Constitutional rights to maintain the rapture of Christians?

Leaders of the Christian Right are preaching that nonbelievers are unqualified to serve as elected officials. A fear of God or the love of Jesus does not keep a person honest or keep one from doing harm. A pedophile priest is the proof of that theory. People are good because of an evolved recognition and acceptance of the concept, along with the establishment of the rule of law.

President George W. said that non-believers are just as much a patriot as people of faith. When do you suppose he had that revelation?

Not having religious beliefs does not mean you aren’t patriotic. It doesn’t mean you can’t have compassion, or empathy, or love.

A woman at a forum in Salida, Colo., asked how an elected official like me could represent her religious beliefs. The answer, of course, was that no one could, or should, represent her religious beliefs. A person’s beliefs are just that–personal. Government has no business getting involved in anyone’s personal beliefs and that is the basis of our argument.

Wanting freedom from religion does not mean wanting to change peoples’ beliefs, it means the opposite. A strict separation of church and state harms no one while at the same time offering the greatest religious freedom to everyone.

I have always been as much a patriot as any American. I honor and respect those whose shoulders we stand on. My bible is the Constitution; my faith is in its wisdom and promise, and in the goodness of the human spirit.

Even though our businesses have been neglected and our retirement account is taking a hit, the court case is going forward. With the blood of our precious sons and daughters being shed to bring freedom to Iraq, could anyone do less to protect it at home?

At my last board meeting, I ended my comments by standing and saying:

“I pledge allegiance to the United States of America and to the Constitution on which it stands; one nation, with liberty, justice, and tolerance for all.” I then kissed the flag and left.

Thank you for your time and your support.

David Habecker served for more than 12 years as a member of the Board of Trustees of Estes Park, Colo., until being recalled this spring for not reciting the religious Pledge of Allegiance. He and the Freedom From Religion Foundation are now suing the township, with representation by Foundation member and attorney Robert R. Tiernan. Habecker graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology and has lived in Estes Park since the 1970s. He designs residential buildings and runs a small hotel with his wife, Susan. They have two grown children. He is a member of the Foundation.

1. Thomas Jefferson
2. G.W. Bush
3. Colo. Gov. Bill Owens
4. John Ashcroft

Freedom From Religion Foundation